By Greg Wehner
Jacob Alegria, the man accused of causing a fatal high-speed car crash on Hill Street in Southampton Village in February 2017 that left a 20-year-old woman dead, was ruled not guilty of all charges on Tuesday, when a Suffolk County Criminal Court judge determined that he was not responsible for his actions due to a medical condition.
Mr. Alegria, 28, had been charged with causing the death of 20-year-old German au pair, Charlotte Meyer, who had arrived in the United States less than 24 hours before the crash.
That day, eyewitnesses testified in court, Mr. Alegria was driving westbound out of the village in his brother’s Lexus SUV, weaving in and out of the oncoming lane at reckless speeds on Hill Street, where the speed limit is 25 mph, before crashing into the car in which Ms. Meyer was a passenger. At the time of the crash, Mr. Alegria’s vehicle was traveling 78.3 mph, according to the “black box” retrieved from the Lexus SUV, which an expert later noted only records up to that speed—meaning his vehicle might have been going even faster.
Mr. Alegria’s defense centered on claims that he had a seizure prior to the crash due to an undiagnosed medical condition. A series of experts testified that he was later diagnosed with epilepsy and may not have been in control of his actions.
State Supreme Court Justice Fernando Camacho found the defense compelling enough to render the not guilty verdict in the bench trial.
“We are, of course, relieved and thankful for the verdict,” said Colin Astarita, the Southampton Village-based attorney who represented Mr. Alegria in court. “We were confident that Judge Camacho would base his decision on the extensive medical evidence and witness testimony, which proved that this was an extremely tragic accident caused not by intentional reckless driving but by a seizure.”
Witnesses testified that they saw Mr. Alegria pass vehicles with precise control, coming within 3 feet of an approaching vehicle in the eastbound lane, and maneuvering into the westbound lane before continuing to speed off.
As he got to the only bend on Hill Street, witnesses said, Mr. Alegria went to pass another vehicle, when Luisa “Lulu” Keszler turned from a side street to head east on Hill Street in her Audi SUV. At that moment, Mr. Alegria said in court, he attempted to go left to avoid hitting Ms. Keszler, but she also swerved in the same direction, ultimately resulting in a head-on collision.
Ms. Keszler was thrown nearly 300 feet from her vehicle as her seatbelt snapped, and her passenger, Ms. Meyer, was killed by blunt force head trauma.
Months later, Mr. Alegria was indicted by a grand jury on charges of second-degree manslaughter and second-degree assault, both felonies, along with reckless endangerment and reckless driving, both misdemeanors.
Before offering his verdict on Tuesday, Justice Camacho read through various pieces of evidence that helped him when deciding Mr. Alegria’s fate. He said he thought everyone could agree that Mr. Alegria’s actions were reckless—but the case hinged on whether his actions were voluntary or not.
Justice Camacho said he believed Mr. Alegria put the accelerator to the floor just before the accident, as the black box in the Lexus recorded an increase in engine speed from 3,200 to 3,600 rotations per minute, indicating that he was not in control of his actions.
“At no point did he ever touch the brakes,” Justice Camacho said, adding that he believed Mr. Alegria may have been going at least 100 mph when he crashed into Ms. Keszler’s vehicle.
Despite testimony from eyewitnesses during the trial who said Mr. Alegria made purposeful decisions and was aware of his timing as he passed cars on Hill Street at speeds more than three times the speed limit, while swerving back into his lane, Mr. Astarita based his case on the premise that Mr. Alegria suffered a seizure, making his actions involuntary.
“That afternoon, Jake suffered an epileptic seizure caused by a lesion in his brain, which was only discovered during tests at the hospital immediately following the accident,” Mr. Astarita said on Tuesday. “The neurologists and neurosurgeon who testified for both the defense and the prosecution stated that this lesion and its location in his brain caused Jake to enter into a semi-conscious state of ‘impaired awareness’ that inhibited his ability to understand and react to his surroundings.”
In explaining his verdict, Justice Camacho said he agreed with Mr. Astarita’s claims that Mr. Alegria seemed to be making disjointed actions, “coming up to a car, avoiding it, coming up to a car, avoiding it and crashing.”
Dr. Charles Mikell, a neurosurgeon who examined Mr. Alegria the day of the crash at Stony Brook University Hospital, said at first he seemed neurologically healthy. But following the results of a CT scan and an MRI, Dr. Mikell determined that he may have been suffering from a medical condition. Dr. Mikell admitted in court that he was angry about the circumstances that led to Mr. Alegria being in the hospital, and that may have led to a misdiagnosis.
During his testimony, Dr. Mikell said it was possible that Mr. Alegria suffered a seizure at the time of the accident, but it was impossible to say for sure. He also said it was possible that the type of seizures Mr. Alegria suffers from, complex partial seizures, could create a dream-like state, and that it was possible for the driver to grip the steering wheel tighter, as one witness said they saw Mr. Alegria do.
Emily Tyson, a Hampton Bays resident who works as a teacher at Southampton High School, testified at the beginning of the trial that she was driving home when she witnessed the events leading up to the crash. “I noticed him looking kind of focused,” Ms. Tyson said. “[He was] looking at the road, gripping the steering wheel.”
She added that he never once lost control of the vehicle. Even after the crash, she said, Mr. Alegria was pacing back and forth, and looked “scared, shocked and a little upset.” Other witnesses also said Mr. Alegria seemed confused after the crash, which experts said could have been the ending stages of a seizure.
“If you’re driving like a bat out of hell and you get into an accident, you shouldn’t be confused,” Mr. Astarita said last week in his closing arguments.
Marc Lindemann, the lead Suffolk County assistant district attorney, described Mr. Alegria to Justice Camacho as a “grossly irresponsible driver” during his closing statements, calling his driving aggressive, controlled and focused. He added that there was no denying that he suffers from seizures, but said on the day of the crash, he did not.
“It’s like the defendant was playing Russian roulette,” Mr. Lindemann said. “When the gun went off, it was pointing at Charlotte and Lulu.”
Mr. Lindemann declined to comment on Tuesday, after the verdict was read. A request for a statement from Suffolk County District Attorney Timothy Sini’s office was not returned.
Dr. Mark Gudesblatt testified that a person suffering from complex partial seizures could have personality changes, and might engage in risky behavior, or even go through sequenced behavior.
Judge Camacho said the analogy given for sequenced behavior was that a musician may play a piece of music multiple times as they are thinking about something else, using rote memory, based on repetition. In Mr. Alegria’s case, he explained, rote memory could have come into play, since the defendant drove Hill Street every day.
Dr. Gudesblatt’s testimony, according to Judge Camacho, was crucial to the verdict. Dr. Gudesblatt said he reviewed all videos and testimony, but during testimony he could not remember whether Mr. Alegria hit his brakes at the time of impact.
The road ahead of Mr. Alegria is far from over.
According to Mr. Astarita, Mr. Alegria’s next step will be to have surgery to remove the cavernous malformation, or abnormal blood vessels, in his brain, which are causing his seizures. Mr. Astarita said Mr. Alegria has not driven since the accident and surrendered his license to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
“DMV actually refused to accept it, because procedurally there needs to be a hearing,” he said. “Eventually, a hearing was scheduled, and he provided a doctor’s note stating his condition, and then DMV accepted the voluntary surrender of his driving privileges. It is my understanding that for people with epilepsy, DMV requires a doctor’s letter indicating that the motorist be seizure free for at least one year before reinstating driving privileges.”
Multiple attempts to contact Ms. Keszler to find out if a civil lawsuit was in the works, were not returned.
Mr. Astarita noted that his client continues to sympathize with the families affected by the accident.
“Her passing is an incomprehensible tragedy that he will now bear for the rest of his life,” Mr. Astarita said of Ms. Meyer. “Jake has continuously expressed his deep sorrow and continues to hope and pray for the understanding and forgiveness of the Meyer and Keszler families.”